Regardless of which side you support in the Terry Schiavo case, one thing is clear: You should have written instructions as to what you would like to have happen in the event you are beset with a terminal or incapacitating illness.

“Most people have not had these conversations,” said Cordt Kassner, executive director of the Colorado Hospice Organization, a nonprofit advocacy group. “They have not filled out this paperwork, and it really leaves the medical community at a loss of what to do.” Colorado residents especially need to make their end-of-life wishes known to loved ones because the state has no legal directive for who will make medical decisions in the absence of a living will, he said.

Every state has different laws. It’s not hard to find an Internet site where you can buy the appropriate document at low cost. These sites have you type in your state so that the form comports with the applicable law. Before spending any money though, check out the free Advance Directive forms and explanations from the Memorial Hospital in Craig, Colorado. The “Living Will” is available here. Medical Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions is available here.

Just read the information page carefully, and make sure you understand the forms before you sign them. If you have questions, call an estate attorney or an elder care attorney. Portions of the information page have been reproduced below, but go read the whole thing. . Note: I am neither an estate attorney nor an elder care attorney, so please don’t construe this as legal advice. It is being offered in my individual capacity and I’m learning as I go along, just like you are. What’s a living will?

A living will is a document you sign telling your doctor not to use artificial life support measures if you become terminally ill, which means an incurable or irreversible condition for which the administration of life-sustaining procedures will serve only to postpone the moment of death. In Colorado, your living will does not go into effect until two doctors agree in writing that you have a terminal condition. In Colorado, living wills may be used to stop tube feeding and other forms of artificial nourishment, but only if your living will clearly says so. If you are able to take food by mouth, your living will won’t prevent you from being fed. In any case, artificial nourishment may be used if necessary to provide comfort or relieve pain. Two witnesses must sign your living will. The following cannot witness or sign a living will: patients in the facility in which you are receiving care, any doctor or any employee of your doctor, any employee of the facility or agency providing your care, your creditors, or people who may inherit your money or property.

What’s a Medical Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions?

A medical durable power of attorney is a document you sign naming someone to make your health care decisions. The person you name is called your agent. Your agent stands in for you when it is time to make any and all medical or other health care decisions with your doctor. Your agent can get copies of your medical records and other information to make medical decisions for you. There are other types of durable powers of attorney which allow an agent to make different kinds of decisions for you, including financial ones. A medical durable power of attorney can cover more health care decisions than a living will does and is not limited to terminal illness. You may put instructions or guidelines into your medical durable power of attorney telling your agent what you really want. You can cancel (revoke) your medical durable power of attorney at any time. Your medical durable power of attorney can become effective immediately, or you can make it become effective when you become unable to make your own medical decisions. A medical durable power of attorney form is attached to this pamphlet (Attachment B) and may be used. The medical durable power of attorney discussed in this pamphlet is the type which becomes effective only when you become unable to make your own health care decisions. If you want information on the one which can become effective immediately, you may want to talk to a lawyer. You can appoint anyone to be your health care agent as long as that person is at least 18 years old, mentally competent and willing to be your agent. Your agent does not have to live in Colorado, although you may want to choose someone nearby. If you appoint your spouse as your agent, and the later you are divorced, legally separated, or your marriage is annulled, your former spouse is automatically removed as your agent unless expressly stated otherwise in your medical durable power of attorney. It is important to talk with your doctor, your family and your agent about your medical care choices and your advance directives.